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Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

I feel that John Hughes would approve. From noted graphic novelist Dash Shaw (“New School,” “Cosplayers”) comes an animation experience that combines a high school comedy with a disaster movie and a tinge of the surreal. MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL SINKING INTO THE SEA is the story of a character named Dash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman), a sophomore at Tides High School, working hard for what passes for the school newspaper, along with his best friend Assaf (Reggie Watts) and their editor Verti (Maya Rudolph). Assaf is the better writer, and Dash is prone to fits of muckraking and revenge writing when someone tramples his fragile emotions, which makes for some awkward moments between the three when Verti begins assigning Assaf for serious pieces to write.

But all personal issues must be put aside (or so you’d think) when an earthquake hits, and the school (built on a fault line) falls into the ocean, leaving the three resourceful students to make their way through the school’s various cliques and social strata to get to the roof in the hopes of being rescued. The fact that Dash uncovered the administration’s cover-up of the impending disaster just before the earthquake and no one listened to him, gives him a slight sense of superiority, but it isn’t until the group combines forces with the snobby popular girl Mary (Lena Dunham) and the surprisingly resourceful and strong Lunch Lady Lorraine (Susan Sarandon) that the group has a fighting chance of getting out of this alive.

Shaw’s sense of humor is a perfect blend of sly, cynical and silly, and the film’s observations about existing and surviving high school are right on the money. The way the student body and school staff almost immediately begin to turn on each other and form various tribes within each floor of the school is inspired and hilarious, as the filmmaker borrows visual styles cues from everything from video games to MAD MAX. The retro keyboard score from Rani Sharone serves to underscore the film’s ’80s influence in a delightful way. But in a strange way, MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL SINKING INTO THE SEA made me long for what I now realize were easier times, when all you had to worry about and suffer for were young love, bullies, and the apocalypse.

In this strangely organic and homey approach to a biography documentary, DAVID LYNCH: THE ART LIFE concentrates exclusively on the filmmaker’s early years, leading up to and concluding with the making of his first feature, Eraserhead. So if you’re looking for details on BLUE VELVET, THE ELEPHANT MAN, DUNE, MULHOLLAND DRIVE, “Twin Peaks,” or any of his other works, this may not be the film for you…except it kind of is.

As filmmakers Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, and Olivia Neergaard-Holm (who also acts as editor) go through Lynch’s childhood and teen years, we begin to uncover themes, stories (told by present-day Lynch via voiceover), and people in his life that informed his movies. One childhood tale of being in front of his house on night when a naked woman suddenly emerged from the shadows, clearly in distress, calls to mind a scene from Blue Velvet. More vaguely drawn concepts about suburbia and families living lives that appear perfect on the outside while enduring sometimes terrible secrets behind closed doors are ones that pop up in Lynch’s films quite frequently.

Much of Lynch’s teens and 20s were occupied with living “The Art Life,” which he considered an almost pre-determined lifestyle focused entirely around the creation of art, in his case painting. He knew in his early years he wasn’t very good, but those around him saw a determination and eye for the work that they knew they could coax out of him. The archival photos and home movies of the Lynch family are woven in with more current images of Lynch in his late 60s (he’s currently 71) in his studio, painting, sculpting, and otherwise being creative and clearly having a ball doing so, especially when his youngest daughter is in the room with him.

There is no sit-down interview with Lynch, per se. Rather, the filmmakers put Lynch in a room alone in front of a large microphone that often obscures his face and simply have him talk about his formative years. With the exception of one or two shots, we never actually see Lynch speaking, and it adds a wonderful distancing quality to the piece, as if he’s relaying stories of another man’s life that are often free of insight and are simply recounting odd or important events that shaped him. The directors leave it to the audience to make the connections between past and present, and attempt to decipher why these specific stories (including an uncanny ability to remember names) stuck in Lynch’s head for decades.

Those hoping for creepy tales or overt weirdness are going to be sorely disappointed, and that’s too bad because DAVID LYNCH: THE ART LIFE is as revealing a film about a filmmaker’s most celebrated work that never actually mentions said work as I’ve ever seen. It’s an examination into what bits of information from youth dwell in the mind and how they directly or indirectly influence one’s adult life. The level of detail that her recalls and recites turns black-and-white stories into full-color remembrances, and the doc made me admire and adore the man even more than I already did. The filmmakers do a great job keeping things simple, and let their subject be the one to muddy the artistic waters as only he can.

If I’ve got my timelines correct, when Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (CITIZENFOUR), was holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room with Edward Snowden and a pair of journalists, she was actually in the middle of making another film that would become RISK, an expansive and endlessly fascinating profile of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Less a biography and more of a dissection of the man that begins in 2011, before Assange went into self-imposed exile in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, attempting to evade Swedish authorities who would have him extradited for alleged sexual offenses. The access granted Poitras is, once again, astonishing, but it’s the openness with with Assange speaks around her that is perhaps the most surprising, considering it’s clear he trusts no one and doesn’t really seem to like her either.

RISK is a project during which Poitras is clearly conflicted about her subject. She’s a smart enough filmmaker, storyteller, and reporter to know that turning the cameras off and walking away would be a huge mistake, especially when the rest of the world was attempting to learn anything about this man. We see Assange as he prepares to unload thousands of classified documents, including those provided to him by Chelsea Manning, as he responds to sexual assault charges by two women in Sweden, and even a bizarre, prophetic moment when Assange attempts to contact then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to warn her about documents about to be released by another outlet.

We see those closest to him, including Wikileaks section editor Sarah Harrison, who we find out deep into the film is also (or at least was) Assange’s companion girlfriend and the person who WikiLeaks sent to help Snowden escape Hong Kong to go to Russia. We also meet Assange’s right-hand Jacob Appelbaum, a hacker and security adviser who later left the company, also because of sexual abuse accusations. But his work with the Tor Project—a means of countries under siege to get documents out to the world to expose corruption, war crimes, and other bad deeds—was a crucial part of what WikiLeaks supported for many years.

Perhaps the strangest and most purely entertaining part of RISK involves Assange in a hotel room with his mother as she assists him in getting into a disguise just as the London courts rule to allow him to be extradited to Sweden. The hair dye, colored contacts, biker outfit, sunglasses and newly shaven facial hair add a spy-movie vibe to the whole affair that is almost comical if it wasn’t so serious.

Poitras dives into issues of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and fully transparent governments, and the film has clearly been updated since its premiere at Cannes last May to include updates involving the Democratic National Committee (DNC) email leak through WikiLeaks (allegedly receiving material from the Russian government or an intermediary) that some say tanked Hillary Clinton’s presidential run. If I understood this portion of the film, it does appear that Assange was looking for a source for equally damaging material about Donald Trump’s campaign and simply couldn’t find any.

Much like the experience of watching CITIZENFOUR, I watched both world-shaking and deeply personal moments in Assange’s life pass before my eyes, almost in disbelief. RISK is a film that simply should not exist; yet there it is, and it reveals so much about the state of modern journalism (a grossly uninformed interview of Assange by Lady Gaga at the embassy is particularly awful) and confirms every terrible thing we’ve feared about internet privacy, personal security, and the lengths that governments will go to stop—or at least slow down—a man like Assange. RISK is essential viewing and easily the first must-see documentary I’ve seen this year.

Oh, how I loathed this movie. And it’s not just that I hated the characters in the film—I’m certainly capable of liking a work with bad people at its center—I just really hated spending time with these whiny, self-obsessed awful adults and their equally awful children. I hadn’t quite braced myself for the possibility that I wouldn’t enjoy writer-director Oren Moverman’s THE DINNER for the simple reason that I’ve gotten behind his previous work (THE MESSENGER, TIME OUT OF MIND), and I tend to like the actors he’s working with here, including Richard Gere, Rebecca Hall, Steve Coogan, and Laura Linney. But there is something about this adaptation of the Herman Koch novel is so abrasive and trite that I wanted to slap everybody in it.

THE DINNER is about a lot of things, all of which center around family. But mostly it’s about awful parents who bend over backwards to protect their children after they commit an unspeakable crime. The make excuses, lie about the circumstances surrounding the incidents, talk about protecting their kids’ futures, and do everything except hold their high-school-age kids accountable. Gere plays Stan Lohman, a politician on the verge of running for a very important office, who is married to Katelyn (Hall), his second wife, who has just found out about this crime when we meet her. Stan’s easily agitated brother, Paul (Coogan), is a teacher, married to Claire (Linney), and they too seem eager to sweep this incident under the rug.

Both couples have sons involved in the death of a homeless woman sleeping in an ATM kiosk to stay warm. They need cash, and she’s sticking up the joint. They throw things at her, kick her a bit, and call her horrible names, but she barely moves and just yells at them to stop. Then one of them starts flicking matches at her, one pours something over her body, and eventually they light her fire, and flee the scene laughing. By sheer luck, the camera in the ATM is broken to the point where the boys’ faces are unrecognizable, so it’s effectively up to the families as to whether to turn the kids in or not. The boys make up a story about being attacked, and try to say they were just defending themselves, and while we know this isn’t true, the parents don’t and seem to lean on this justification for comfort. Before things get out of hand, they arrange a dinner for the four adults to talk about what steps to take next.

But long before we even get to the Big Decision, we must suffer through two hours of privileged people complain about their lives, go through existential crises, rehash decades of personal problems that plagued their families since childhood (“Mommy liked you best!”) It turns out that Paul is actually somewhat mentally ill and taking meds for it, but that doesn’t stop him from complaining through every second of movie about topics ranging from how much money this dinner will cost to how corrupt the government that Stan is a part of can be. According to Paul, the only person who ever really understood him was Stan’s first wife Barbara (Chloë Sevigny), who is only seen in flashbacks.

The resulting film and the characters are all patchwork version of real life and people. Nothing about this film feels genuine. What might have been a fascinating, compelling discussion about how these kids were raised and what about their upbringing would have made them think doing something so unspeakable was okay, instead we get interrupted, fractions of conversations all over this exclusive restaurant. Why not sit everyone at a table, force them to look at each other and face who they really are, and let’s see how that plays out? Nope, instead we get a film that might seriously make your experience watching it a contest to select who you hate more: kids or parents. I’m not giving anything away to say that one of the four parents wants to do the right thing and turn the kids in, and the way the other three go after him is repulsive to the point of being laughable and certainly unbelievable.

THE DINNER is a junk movie with garbage characters that taught me something I knew plenty about already: that people are selfish, horrible, occasionally evil things in the world and can justify any behavior if it impacts them directly. If this were a film examining that phenomenon, I might be recommending it. But simply giving us four examples of it isn’t a movie; it’s a mirror.

-- Steve Prokopy
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